Oakland Teens Discuss Oscar Grant

Posted January 16, 2009 10:43 am (about 4021 days ago)

Several days have passed since the protests regarding the shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California. But while there has been quite a bit of commentary from all sides of the issue, I thought it would be worth sharing some of the discussion that has taken place in at least one school in east Oakland. This of course, would be the school I work, Oakland Unity High School. Many of our students live in the Fruitvale district, the area in which Grant was shot. I was hoping to post this in a more timely manner, but alas, other duties called. Note that in them time since I wrote this and the time it was posted, there have been major developments, including murder charges against the cop and a second large protest.-Written 1/9/09.

Like everyone else, I was pretty amped up by the protest and was looking for a way to process all that was happening. I’m no longer in the classroom on a full-time basis, but I coincidentally ended up subbing for a couple of classes the day after the January 7th protests. Because these classes weren’t mine I wasn’t able to gather much written feedback from students and their thoughts, but here are some of the highlights of our discussion. I wasn’t looking for the “right answer,” but rather, was looking to give them a forum to discuss their feelings, ask questions, and develop a critical look at the situation.

First and foremost, I told them that that I wasn’t interested in what they thought happened. I cared how they felt, but we were going to start the conversation based off of facts, not rumors. For example, we don’t know what anyone involved was thinking. None of us were there. All we had to work with was the video of the initial shooting and news coverage of the protests. A few of us were down there for the protest, but I’m not aware of anyone who was directly involved, and I just walked to a co-worker’s car and never came back. By this time things were already hectic. When things started getting violent, it was more in the downtown area, not the area where our students live. I stressed facts and the need to be credible as spouting false claims can discredit a person’s valid points. Someone said that he was shot in front of his daughter although she was not there. Again, the larger lesson was how to have a credible perspective.

One thing we discussed was context. None of the students in this community needed convincing of police brutality so we didn’t spend much time on that, but one thing most of them didn’t know was that the shooter still hadn’t been interviewed. I pointed out that students who get caught cheating or something else meet with the principal that same day. Yet a man lost his life and a week later he still hadn’t been spoken to? We talked about why he resigned and I said it made sense from a legal sense. We differentiated between morality and legality.

The question isn’t whether or not there was a shooting, nor who did the shooting. One question was intent and another who is responsible. Was he reaching for his taser? We discussed where tasers and guns hang on an officers belt, the difference in weight and feel of a gun versus a taser, etc. We discussed training, or possible lack of training. We discussed whether or not the officer should have been on duty if he just had a new born daughter and was fatigued. Again, I wasn’t looking for a set answer, but I wanted to bring up variables so the students would understand the different arguments and look past emotional responses, particularly as related to how things will play out in court.

I talked about my time working with troubled youth who had severe emotional trauma and the fact that we had to restrain students on a daily basis. Nothing that I saw in the video made me think that Grant was unsafe to the point of requiring a tasing. I told the students that we used to tell people that we were trained how to take them down in a safe way and talk them down. Too many cops will just go the hard route and ask questions later so it was better that they dealt with us than to get caught out in the street. I remember a conversation with a friend who’s a cop and he said the same thing about newer cops.

Was it a hostile environment with so many people yelling and even approaching the officers? Maybe, but aren’t the officers trained to deal with these situations? Again, maybe they weren’t properly trained. Maybe the office was scared, maybe he was trying to assert power. I referred again to context, explaining how from some communities this shooting wasn’t a surprise, but from others, who have good relations with the police, they may be more forgiving of the officer. I told them to not get caught up in extremes and to look at the human element on both sides, as well as our own bias and assumptions. Oversimplifying the issues doesn’t help us develop solutions.

One student asked if Oakland is so many millions of dollars in debt, how would they pay off the lawsuit? Again, who’s at fault, thus who pays? Will the taxpayers pay for this? In terms of jurisdiction, this was the BART police, not Oakland Police. At an emotional level, who cares? Police brutality is police brutality (or murder). From a legal and responsibility issue, it does matter. I may be an administrator, but can I be at fault for something that happens at another high school?

Some students asked why all the cops in the video were White when Oakland is so diverse. I did something that I’ve done several times as a teacher and asked how many of them wanted to be cops. No one raised their hand. I then asked how many wanted to be a teacher. One said “yes.” In the past four years there have been a handful interested in law enforcement and four, out of at more than two hundred, who were interested in being teachers. I’m not going to pressure them either way and there are we’ve discussed this issue in depth, yet I pointed out that we’re a college prep school that is more than 99% students of color, so where are all of these diverse, culturally sensitive public servants supposed to come from? As I write this, we only have one teacher who’s a native Oaklander. Interestingly enough, a number of students over the years have expressed being a “good cop” who helps people and we have a strong relationship with the criminal justice program at Merritt College. In our longer discussions we’ve talked about the diversity of the OPD, which actually does have people of color. However, the students are quick to acknowledge that a cop’s skin color doesn’t guarantee respectful or negative treatment either way


1. Daniel said at January 25, 2009 2:47 pm:

Look at this new footage of Oscar Grant getting punched by another BART cop, right before the shooting. Is there any wonder why people are so angry with cops, and not just about Oscar Grant? In the spirit of the Black Panthers, make sure you always keep a camera handy.

2. Juan Carlos said at March 22, 2009 4:24 pm:

Instead of the police protecting the community the community has to protect itself from the police because the police just judge you on what you're wearing, what you look like, or where you live, or the way you walk. And even after they stop you they assume that you did something or that you got something on you. Like in one of my experiences the cop tried to search my pockets. Because my keys sounded like a paint marker he assumed I was a tagger and he tried to put me in the cop car. Another day I was walking to the bus stop with friends and we got stopped just because the cop assumed that we were gang members because we all had black hoodies and we were all Latinos. He tried to search us for drugs and to see if we had any gang related tattoos. That's why I feel the way I do about the cops. (editor's note, this commentary is from January, although it's just being posted in March)

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